If the overwhelming public expectation in Tamil Nadu following the Supreme Court (SC) verdict on Tuesday has been the collapse of the VK Sasikala faction of the AIADMK, and O. Panneerselvam seizing the opportunity, what has happened since yesterday has been most extraordinary.
Not only the scathing SC judgment that sentenced Sasikala to four years of imprisonment didn't create any fissure in her empire, but it also seemed to have reinforced it. If political observers and general public thought that the impact of the verdict would at least make the trickle of MLAs and MPs moving over to the OPS camp stronger, what has happened is nothing short of stunning. Her fort remained invincible while her MLAs and MPs demonstrated medieval fealty.
Tuesday was a day of reckoning for both Sasikala and OPS. That almost all the MLAs chose to stay with her - whether under coercion — as alleged by the OPS camp, fear or primitive loyalty — was remarkable. In fact, had there been any ferment of dissent within her faction, it could have surfaced when the SC verdict came, and the MLAs could have easily walked out because the public sentiment against her had been so palpable. But except one, nobody left. They not only stayed back, but also took part in a successful pushback.
It's impossible to hazard a guess as to what could have guided the MLAs to side with one of the most despised persons in Tamil Nadu now. Was it because they had been insulated from television channels and other communication devices and hence didn't know the intensity of the public scorn against Sasikala and her clan and the effusive support to OPS? Or was it because of some sort of emotional blackmail by Sasikala who could have played the Amma card and recounted stories of her decades-long sacrifice?
Or was it because the MLAs have already spent a lot of money to win their elections - some possibly with even borrowed money - and hence didn't want to take risks before they recover them?
The motivations could have been one of these or a combination, but regardless of whatever drove them individually, the idea of keeping them together in an Orwellian controlled environment, with Sasikala also ensuring personal bonding, seemed to have worked. No more defections are reported except one yesterday, and her pack looks rather solid.
Had any MLA wanted to walk out from the alleged confinement, that was the right time. But nobody did.
Many expected her to crack under the weight of the SC verdict that not only dashed her hopes to become the Chief Minister but also put her in jail and banished her from any public office till she is 72.
Instead, she tightened her grip. According to available information, buoyed by the possible impact of the SC verdict and the sudden swell of additional public support, the OPS camp tried to get the MLAs out through a two-pronged strategy. First they sent in police, led by senior officers, to inform the MLAs that they could leave the resort any time with protection. But none of them took the offer. Had any MLA wanted to walk out from the alleged confinement, that was the right time. But nobody did.
If Sasikala's caste base in the party had been the Thevars till a few days ago, in a clever manipulation, she has shifted it to the Gounders.
OPS camp then tried personal persuasion, but that too was aborted because nobody took the bait. That was Sasikala's remarkable success. She could get people risk their careers and rally around her, when she was apparently going down in the dumps. Instead of cowering in fear, she forcefully hit back with her plan B by putting Edappady Palanisamy who could personalise not only her animosity with OPS, but also an inherent caste rivalry - Palanisamy is a Gounder and OPS is a Thevar. If Sasikala's caste base in the party had been the Thevars till a few days ago, in a clever manipulation, she has shifted it to the Gounders. Besides Palanisamy, her new confidante and leuitenant also is a Gounder - Thambidurai, who also doesn't like OPS.
Her next step was the most decisive - make AIADMK her family property.
Without the MLAs' obeisance, Sasikala couldn't have done it by appointing TTV Dinakaran, her nephew, as the party's Deputy General Secretary. It's a new post and by all means, the new head of the party because she will be an absentee General Secretary. Dinakaran was one of the family members that Jaya had dismissed from the AIADMK in 2011 and kept out of her sight till her death. Sasikala also took back another close family member, Dr. S Venkatesh. Along with Jaya's former residence - Veda Nilayalm in Poes Garden - and may other assets, AIADMK is also now a Mannardudi family property.
These are audacious steps that stretched her possibilities to their limit because Sasikala knew that she needed the AIADMK, its entire resources, and the government to survive the jail term and to protect the assets of the family. As the details of the SC order show, its a megalithic political-business complex and needs protection. If she lets her authority slip, her empire will collapse. She can't let it happen - there is no alternative other than making it work by hook or by crook.
Probably because of her circumstances or her survival instincts, Jayalalithaa doesn't mean anything anymore than a pin-up icon for Sasikala now because had she been alive, none of these family members could have come anywhere close, let alone one become the de facto General Secretary of the party, a post that only MGR and she had held.
OPS's strategy now should be to go all out against her in public and defeat the trust of her party in the assembly.
OPS's only hope is the public sentiment which clearly and conclusively is against Sasikala and her family. So, all that he can try to achieve in the assembly when it convenes for a floor test - most probably a composite test - is not to let her proxy win. Even that will be an uphill task because he needs at least eight more MLAs.
If he manages to achieve that, he could make some dent because what follows will be the President's rule, the duration of which could be tailored to his convenience (because BJP is clearly playing a backroom partner role). Therefore, OPS's strategy now should be to go all out against her in public and defeat the trust of her party in the assembly. It will be rather impossible for her to win the trust of the people any time now.
Fresh elections can be his only chance for spoiling Sasikala's impudent party and reviving himself. If he doesn't do it, Sasikala will finish him off. It will also cause a lot of irreversible collateral damage to Tamil Nadu.